What exactly is a smart television? Like a smartphone, it’s a television that can connect to the Internet to fetch information and content. While a smartphone is primarily a communication device, a smart TV serves different purposes; you can use it to access streaming services, watch short videos, or listen to music through your home entertainment speaker system. If you’re subscribed to streaming services, you can watch high-quality Ultra-HD and high dynamic range content without needing a separate device connected to your TV.
Smart TVs need a framework to run on, better known as the operating system. Different televisions and streaming devices run on different operating systems, and each one has its own unique set of pros and cons. We’ve compared three of the most popular operating systems for smart TVs as well as streaming devices – Android TV, Amazon Fire TV, and Apple tvOS. Read on to find out which is the best for you.
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Devices supported and prices
The three smart TV and streaming device operating systems mentioned here have big similarities to their smartphone counterparts, particularly when it comes to supported devices. Android TV, like the Android smartphone OS, is available to various television manufacturers to license and use on their devices.
Notable manufacturers that use Android TV are Sony, Xiaomi, Vu, and TCL for televisions, while we’ve also seen streaming devices such as the MarQ TurboStream running on this platform. Android TV is built into the televisions themselves, and many different models are available across budgets and sizes.
Amazon’s Fire TV (itself a forked version of Android) is largely for its own range of streaming devices such as the Fire TV Stick 4K. In India, two Fire TV Stick devices are available: the Full-HD Fire TV stick is priced at Rs. 3,999, while the much more feature-filled Fire TV Stick 4K costs Rs. 5,999.
This operating system is also licensed to some manufacturers for their televisions, with Toshiba and Insignia being key licensees in the US. Onida recently launched the first Fire TV Edition television in India in partnership with Amazon, priced starting at Rs. 12,999.
Apple tvOS is an operating system based on iOS, developed by Apple for its Apple TV range of streaming devices. The platform is used exclusively on Apple’s own devices, and is not available to license by other manufacturers. Apple TV devices are priced at a premium, with the full-HD Apple TV (32GB) retailing for Rs. 12,900, and the Apple TV 4K (32GB) costing Rs. 15,900.
Apps and services
All three of these smart TV operating systems support a good amount of apps and games. While a lot of them might not be particularly relevant or useful to most users, a good measure of quality is how many of the popular apps are supported, and if there are any apps or services that are exclusive to or work best on a particular platform.
Android TV is believed to support the highest number of apps, having crossed the 5,000 mark in 2019. Key apps and services are supported on Android TV, including Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, Disney+ Hotstar, and various India-centric services such as Zee5 and Sony Liv. Since Android TV is developed by Google, the company’s own streaming services work best on the platform. YouTube, YouTube Kids, and Google Play Movies all work particularly well on Android TV.
Amazon’s Fire OS, more commonly referred to as Fire TV for televisions and streaming devices, appears to support fewer apps than Android TV. However, key apps and services are supported, including all the leading streaming services in India and abroad. Interestingly, the Apple TV app is officially available on this platform, giving users access to quality 4K HDR content that can be purchased or rented. Additionally, the Apple TV+ subscription service is available as well.
While Fire TV regained official support for the YouTube app last year, the official YouTube Kids app is still not available on the platform. Google Play Movies doesn’t have an official app, but purchases and rentals can be watched through the official YouTube app.
Apple tvOS has all the major streaming services available, including Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, Disney+ Hotstar, and more; essentially, most apps that are available for iOS are also present on the tvOS platform. The Apple TV experience – rentals, purchases, and the subscription service – works best on tvOS through an Apple TV device.
All three smart TV platforms have one thing in common: support for virtual assistants. Naturally, each uses its manufacturer’s own as the default; Android TV uses Google Assistant, Fire TV uses Alexa, and tvOS uses Siri. Some devices even allow hands-free operation using only voice commands, although this can be achieved on all the platforms even if a TV doesn’t support it natively, by using a compatible smart speaker.
Android TV devices usually have a Google Assistant button on the voice remote, but some high-end devices such as the Sony A9G OLED TV have a built-in microphone that is always listening for commands. The platform does allow device-specific access to Alexa as well, letting users access things like Alexa skills and Amazon shopping related information on some Android TV-powered devices.
If you have a Google Home smart speaker nearby, set up using the same Google account, you can use it to control your smart TV without pressing a button or speaking into the remote. You can use Google Assistant on Android TV to get information as you would on a smartphone or smart speaker, or fetch specific content to watch on the smart TV itself.
Amazon Fire TV devices such as the Fire TV Stick 4K come with a voice remote which has a microphone and voice button. Fire TV uses Alexa to execute these commands, which includes getting useful information, or having Alexa search through the Prime Video and Netflix catalogues for content.
A Fire TV device can be linked to Amazon’s Echo smart speakers and some third-part devices with Alexa built-in for a number of purposes, including hands-free voice commands, or using an Echo speaker as a home theatre system. The latter can be useful if you have a good Echo speaker such as the Echo Studio, which offers better sound than the speakers on most affordable televisions. You can also use the Fire TV Stick remote to control volume on the Echo speaker this way.
Apple TV devices running tvOS support Siri for voice commands. If you’re a heavy user of Siri, you’ll appreciate the integration on tvOS as well. If you have a HomePod smart speaker, you can link it to the Apple TV for hands-free voice commands, as well as use it as a wireless external speaker. Siri itself isn’t quite as capable as Google Assistant and Alexa in our opinion, but it does get the job done most of the time.
Interface, ease of use, and performance
Other services such as Netflix and Amazon Prime Video are also supported as separate apps, which can be accessed through the tiled interface. The platform is quick to boot and navigate, lets you search through the catalogues of various services, fetches content quickly for supported apps and services, and offers the best streaming quality with a fast Internet connection. Not only that, but slow Internet connections don’t affect tvOS as much as the other platforms, with stream quality holding up well even with a patchy connection.
Fire TV is, in our opinion, the next best option when it comes to stream quality. The Fire TV interface is much more colourful and vibrant, and the way content and device settings are laid out makes it very easy to get around. However, Fire TV expectedly promotes Amazon Prime Video content above other platforms, and the interface is often filled with suggestions that may not always be relevant to the user, such as content in various Indian regional languages.
Fire TV does show headers for content from across apps and services, but we’ve never found these recommendations to be very relevant. Apps and services can be managed easily, and it is possible to set and quickly access watchlists, but the core experience centres around Amazon Prime Video alone.
On Android TV, the interface follows a pattern of rows – called Channels – with content for specific apps displayed in each row. The top row is used for your favourite apps, and many Android TV devices also feature hotkeys on their remotes for popular streaming services such as Netflix, Amazon Prime Video and YouTube. This makes it easy to quickly go into the app we want, and Android TV comes across as the most neutral of the three operating systems despite being linked to a major streaming platform.
Like the companies behind the other platforms, Google does have its own streaming services – YouTube, YouTube Kids, and Google Play Movies. While the experience for these services is best on Android TV, the interface promotes content from other services as well, including Netflix and Spotify.
Apple tvOS and Android TV are linked to an Apple ID and Google account respectively. This allows for excellent integration with their respective smartphone and PC platforms as well as cloud services. The benefits include quick setup, syncing of purchases and playlists, and the ability to use a smartphone to operate the smart TV UI to some extent. If you’re an iOS or macOS user, you’ll likely prefer tvOS; if you use an Android smartphone, you’ll like Android TV better.
All three platforms support content at up to 4K resolution with HDR, including the Dolby Vision and HDR10 formats; this is device-dependent though, so your streaming device and/or TV need to have these capabilities.
It’s hard to pick a definitive winner among the three smart TV and streaming device platforms that we’ve put to the test here. All three offer convincing reasons to invest in them. However, they are all positioned differently and appeal to different sets of users, so your choice should be reasoned based on what you’re looking for from your smart TV or streaming device.
If you watch a lot of YouTube, or you don’t want to invest in an additional streaming device, Android TV is for you. You can buy a television from a number of brands with Android TV built in, and you’ll have everything you need right out of the box. From budget options to premium ones, there’s something for everyone with Android TV.
If your TV’s built-in OS isn’t too great, is missing key apps and features, or you don’t have a smart TV at all, Fire TV is the best and most affordable upgrade option. The Amazon Fire TV Stick range starts at Rs. 3,999, and is a worthwhile upgrade that gives you access to a wide range of streaming services and apps.
If your budget is no bar and you have an iPhone, iPad, HomePod, or Mac computer, tvOS is the best pick. At Rs. 12,900 for the regular Apple TV and Rs. 15,900 onwards for the Apple TV 4K, this will require a considerable investment over and above the price of the TV itself. However, it will give you access to the best streaming services, quality, and interface there is. Apple tvOS brings out the best in any television, and is the streaming platform to go for if you care about the overall experience.
Mi TV 4X vs Vu Cinema TV: Which is the best budget TV in India right now? We discussed this on Orbital, our weekly technology podcast, which you can subscribe to via Apple Podcasts or RSS, download the episode, or just hit the play button below.